(CNN) — Conflicting portraits have emerged of the police officer at the center of the controversy surrounding the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island during an attempted arrest in July.
Defenders of Officer Daniel Pantaleo say he is an upstanding former Boy Scout with few complaints against him. Critics say he should have been indicted for his role in Garner’s death and point to two lawsuits against him as signs that his record as an officer is tarnished.
Police union officials describe him in glowing terms, saying he is no hothead.
“He’s a model of what we want a police officer to be,” said Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. “He’s a mature, mature police officer, motivated by serving the community. He literally is an Eagle Scout.”
Pantaleo has had “very few citizen complaints” against him over the course of more than 300 arrests, according to union spokesman Albert O’Leary.
But court records show he has been sued at least twice, both times on allegations of false arrest and unlawful imprisonment.
One suit was brought by two men from Staten Island, Darren Collins and Tommy Rice, who alleged that Pantaleo arrested them in 2012 on baseless charges, and humiliated them in public.
They claimed that on the street, during an arrest on drug suspicions, Pantaleo and another officer “pulled down the plaintiffs’ pants and underwear, and touched and searched their genital areas, or stood by while this was done in their presence.”
Lawyers for the officers denied the charges, saying they acted reasonably and exercised their discretion. But they reached a settlement in the case, for $30,000, according to the plaintiffs’ lawyers.
The other suit, filed this year, has not yet been resolved.
In that case, Rylawn Walker accuses Pantaleo and another police officer of approaching, accosting, falsely arresting and falsely imprisoning him on marijuana possession charges in February 2012. Walker says the charges were later dropped.
The arrest, the lawsuit says, was “part of a pattern of false arrests and civil rights violations against persons of color” by police.
According to the police union, Pantaleo comes from a family of public servants: his father is a retired New York City firefighter, and his uncle was an officer with the NYPD. He went to Monsignor Farrell High School in Staten Island, then got a bachelor’s degree from the College of Staten Island.
He joined the force in 2006, working his way up from a “condition unit,” where he enforced quality-of-life crimes, to assignments in narcotics enforcement and then in an anti-crime unit.
He is now 29 and single, with no children.
On Wednesday, a grand jury decided not to indict Pantaleo for his role in Garner’s death — a controversial decision that’s sparked protests in New York and across the country.
Garner died in July after Pantaleo put him in a chokehold. A medical examiner ruled the death of homicide. And after the chokehold, New York’s police commissioner announced that officers would undergo a three-day retraining period on the proper use of force when engaging a suspect.
“I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner,” Pantaleo said Wednesday in a statement. “My family and I include him and his family in our prayers and I hope that they will accept my personal condolences for their loss.”
But the widow of Eric Garner, Esaw Garner, said Wednesday night that Pantaleo should be held accountable for her husband’s death.
“He’s still working, he’s still getting a paycheck,” she said, “and my husband is six feet under and I’m looking for a way to feed my kids now.”
And Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, told CNN’s Erin Burnett Thursday night that Pantaleo “has no regard for human life, if this is the way he treats suspects.”
Pantaleo still faces an internal review by the NYPD, and a federal civil rights investigation, so it is unclear if he will be allowed to return to policing.
In the recent high-profile incident in Ferguson Missouri, where teenager Michael Brown was killed during a contentious encounter with a policeman, the officer involved was not indicted but nevertheless resigned from the job, saying he could not be effective after the public controversy.
But former New York City police commissioner Howard Safir says Pantaleo does not necessarily have to follow that precedent.
Unlike Ferguson, which is a very small department, there are over 35,000 police officers in New York in a city of 8 million people,” he said. “I believe that if officer Pantaleo is found to be retained with the Department, he could continue in police work, yes.”
But even if Pantaleo were cleared, police union president Patrick Lynch says, “this death will never go away from him. It will always be in the back of his mind.”